Preliminary findings of a three-month study suggest that prevalence of the novel coronavirus in New Jersey could be twice as high as what's been conveyed daily since March through reports of positive test results.

The study that wrapped on Dec. 22 tested for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies in hundreds of people throughout Essex County, whether or not they had formally tested positive for the virus. Researchers randomly selected shoppers and, if they were willing to participate, asked them a short list of questions and grabbed a finger stick blood sample for testing.

"We know that there are people who are asymptomatic but actually have the virus — we're quantifying that in this study," said Dr. Henry Raymond, associate professor and epidemiologist at Rutgers School of Public Health.

The school worked in conjunction with Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the North Jersey Community Research Initiative on the project that launched Sept. 15. Researchers aimed to test 950 subjects by late December.

"People were really interested in participating," Raymond said.

The team is still in the process of creating a final data set, but Raymond said initial data suggest "there's almost twice as much antibody prevalence than there is virus prevalence, based on the New Jersey Department of Health statistics they publish on their website."

The state's numbers include individuals who've been diagnosed with an active form of the virus through PCR testing. Antibody tests look specifically for your body's response to the virus. The state's COVID-19 website says the antibody test is "good at determining if you had the disease."

Antibody testing, however, does not predict immunity. Since this is a novel coronavirus, experts do not yet know whether someone who's been exposed to the coronavirus, or has fallen ill with COVID-19, may be immune to future exposures.

Raymond noted that positive COVID-19 tests are more crucial for professionals handling the care and treatment of cases, while epidemiologists are more focused on how the virus spreads.

"It's part of a bigger picture that if we really want to understand the impact or the burden of this virus on our community, we need to look at all these different aspects," Raymond said.

It is possible that someone who unknowingly had the virus at one point could have infected others who would not handle the virus as well.

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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